My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)’

Barely weeks after his last album release, the enjoyable religious record Hand To The Plow, ex-Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon has come up with a mainly secular bluegrass-based effort which is even better than the latter.  He produced it himself and has done a fine job.  A variety of pickers were used, with an average of four players of any given instrument across the album (but no detailed breakdown by track)but the end result is very cohesive, sparklingly performed bluegrass with Marty’s distinctive, warm voice taking center stage.  Marty sounds great again, and the songs are all pretty good, with an overarching theme of the past.

A nice cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s nostalgic hit ‘Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream)’, with particularly pleasing fiddle, is a highlight, and Marty is entirely convincing singing of a childhood in poverty but a happy one.

The religious focus is not completely abandoned.  Marty actually co-wrote the joyfully urgent gospel of ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’, which Lee Ann Womack recorded on her debut album in the 90s, and here he gives his own reading, which is very good (although I would still just give the edge to the earlier recording).  An absolutely beautifully sung close-harmony ballad, ‘Beulah Land’ is another religious number, and there is an enjoyable cover of the bright mid-tempo ‘Prayer Bells Of Heaven’, written by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and Buck White (member of the Whites and father in law of Ricky Skaggs).

Bluegrass heritage gets several nods with interesting revivals of generally lesser-known songs.  Bill Monroe’s ‘Rocky Road Blues’ rhythmically melds blues and bluegrass, while ‘White House Blues’, another Monroe song, taken at a frenetic pace, takes on a political theme – but neither a contemporary one nor a controversial one.  It wasn’t even contemporary when Monroe recorded it in 1954, as it deals with the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and his replacement in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.  Lyrically, it seems an odd choice to revive, but musically it sounds very good.  ‘Down The Road’ is a Flatt & Scruggs song which is bouncily enjoyable, and Jimmy Martin’s vivacious up-tempo ‘Home Run Man’ rather engagingly uses baseball as the metaphor for a man courting his love interest.

Marty also pays heed to his personal musical heritage by redoing a couple of Shenandoah hits.  The melodic ‘Ghost in This House’ is lovely, and ‘Next To You, Next To Me’ is also well done, but both are probably inessential if you have the original recordings.

If there is an emphasis on ‘yesterday’, the ‘today’ of the album’s sub-title is represented by a couple of new songs.  The plaintive mid-tempo ‘Big Pain’ is an excellent new song written by Marty with Billy Droze and John Fountain.  It bemoans a lost love, causing a pain which hurts so much more than physical injuries.  ‘Dirt Road Heartache’, a mid-tempo heartbreak bluegrass song written by Melissa Peirce and Jerry Salley, is also new and very good.

I am slightly puzzled as to why these two albums have been released quite so close together (and both on Rural Rhythm imprints), yet not quite simultaneously, as there must be a risk that one or the other will get overlooked.  But the music on this second album is flawless, and the song selection makes its potential market wider than its companion.  It really is well worth hearing if you like Marty’s singing, or bluegrass in general.

Grade: A

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